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Prior to April 10, 2010, I had never heard of pianist/keyboardist Harris Simon. That was the day I walked down to the mailbox and found his CD waiting for me. It was a Saturday, and that night on “Saturday Night Jazz” I lost no time playing a track from the album.
Before I go any further about the music, let’s find out something about the man. He was born in 1957 in New York. By age 15 he was a self-described “blues fanatic… playing boogie woogie piano, blues harmonica and slide guitar”. At 17, he joined a jazz group. Early influences were Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly and Horace Silver.
Over the years he has performed with many well-known jazz musicians including Art Farmer, Michael Brecker, Ray Drummond, Claudio Roditi, Red Mitchell, Clifford Jordan, Sonny Fortune, and others.
He is presently Instructor of Jazz Piano, Harmonica and Director of the Jazz Combo at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
In 1978, when Simon was 21 years old, producers George Klabin and Jeff Kaufman assembled a group of musicians to record two albums with Simon. Those albums were released in Japan in 1978 and 1980, but not in America.
The Mastery Of Passion – 1978/2010 – Resonance Records
Nor would these recordings be heard here until 32 years later when co-producer Klabin cherry-picked eleven tracks to be released under the title, “The Mastery Of Passion”.
An awful lot of people were involved in making these recordings. I’m not going to list them all here, but the principals were:
Harris Simon, piano, Rhodes, harmonica
Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone
Claudio Roditi, trumpet & flugelhorn
Bill Washer, guitar
Mike Richmond, upright & electric bass
Brian Brake, drums
NOTE: Long before you finish reading the words below, you will have come to the inescapable conclusion that I dislike music that is over-produced. I do dislike it, that is true. “Keep it simple” are some of the truest words ever spoken, and they apply to music just as well as to other aspects of life. However, you can enjoy the obvious talent and dedication of the musicians even as you dread what the post-production meddling has done to their efforts. “The Mastery Of Passion” is a great album. The fact that, in my opinion, it is great despite the meddling, not because of it, should not detract from that.
“The Mastery Of Passion” includes four songs written by Simon, and our first sampling of his impressive compositional skills comes on track two, “Swish”.
From the git-go this is a compelling piece of straight ahead jazz with Brecker and Roditi trading off and then falling silent while Simon takes it away at a full trot, backed by Richmond and Brake. When Brecker returns, he continues the high speed pace. Richmond and Brake do a little trade off for a moment that quiet things down, then the horns return and carry it to the end.
“Midday Dreams”, written by co-producer Jeff Kaufman, is up next. This is a beautiful ballad that provides a nice change of pace. “Midday Dreams” pretty much lives up to its title. It’s a quietly pleasant song that probably benefits more from the violin overlay more than any of the other songs here. Grady Tate sits in on drums for this one and does his usual great job.
“Factory”, from Cesar Camargo Mariano, is next. The opening seems a bit odd at first, and then you realize what you’re hearing is the musical representation of… a factory. It soon fades and is replaced by violins and chorus. Once they have done their obligatory bit we get down to some real music. Simon is doing his thing on the Rhodes, then Roditi’s trumpet comes in and takes over for a while, followed by our first real exposure to Washer on guitar. Then we’re back to the clockwork effect from the beginning momentarily, and Simon himself returns, this time on piano. You may love this song, or you may hate it. What you won’t be is ambivalent!
Here is “Factory”, fresh from YouTube:
Another Simon original, “Don The Don”, is next. It opens with Brecker and Simon, with drummer Brake and bassist Richmond chiming in. This is another lively, fast paced song. Brecker carries you along and then stops. Simon continues on against the backdrop of the rhythm section. Then bass and guitar take over, with Washer once again standing out.
“Romance Of Death”, from Hugo Fatturoso, is a lively samba that has had some unnecessary vocals inserted in places. When it’s just the boys playing their instruments, this is a great song. The producers apparently saw their job as “improvers” of the music, meaning adding vocals and violins, which is unfortunate.
“Romance Of Death” and the opening number, “Wind Chant”, are two great pieces of music that both suffer here from excessive over-production. During the parts when the add-ons are not present, this is a very fine, energetic song with a fine melody and wonderful work from all involved.
Here is “Romance Of Death”:
The third Simon original, “Loufiana”, is track 10. This one opens delicately with Joe Farrell on the flute and stays mellow until the end. This song is markedly different than Simon’s two earlier efforts, and Farrell’s work on the flute is delightful. A little over halfway along, Simon steps in with the piano, along with Richmond’s bass and an occasional statement from drummer Brake. This is a beautiful song.
It’s not every day you hear a song whose opening is the sound of a fire truck siren in the distance. “Street Song”, the last track on “The Mastery Of Passion”, also the final Simon original here, does just that. Like “Loufiana”, it is completely different from those that preceded it. Simon finally pulls out the harmonica and treats us to a few good licks, while John Riley sits in on the drums in admirable fashion. Simon switches back and forth between the mouth harp and piano, with a tiny little hint of honky tonk for flavoring. This is one of my favorite songs on this album, not least because there are no needless violins or vocals laid over the top of it. Ahem.
Harris Simon’s “The Mastery Of Passion” is a great album, and I am sure you will find it a delightful addition to your personal playlist for a Saturday, or any other, night. J
To read more about Harris Simon and his music, you can view his faculty page on the William and Mary web site. There is also a nice interview with him, from a few years prior to the release of “The Mastery Of Passion”, posted here.
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Thank you! J
Copyright © 2012 by Al Evans. All rights reserved.